Field Recording Style Comparison

2015/11/25

Field Recording Type Comparison Hero 2

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about field recording styles lately. I have been writing a new article about a recent field recording mission. It describes how I captured some tricky sound effects. Due to the nature of the shoot, I was forced to work in the stealth field recording style.

I’ll share more about those sound clips next week. However, while writing that article, I reflected upon on how a more conventional field recording style would have affected the shoot and the sound effects I recorded.

I began to write. It became a bit of a meaty post. So, settle in, and join me in exploring the four styles of field recording sound effects.

Considering Gear, and Craft

Here on the site during the month of October, 26 articles explored the gear field recordists choose, how they use it, and the sounds they capture with their kits. Of course, that’s not all there is to field recording. The sound clips must be gathered properly, too. How can you do this?

I took a stab at explaining earlier, in “An Introduction to Gathering Sound Effects.” This post goes deeper. It considers four distinct methods that are typically used for capturing the sounds around us. While the 26 sound pros from last month helped us think about equipment, the four methods I’ll share here are reflections upon approaches to capturing audio beyond the studio.

After all, there are endless sound subjects. For the craft of field recording to have depth and meaning, surely there must be a nuanced approach to gathering sound fx.

That’s why the idea isn’t to share a paint-by-number guide for capturing every sound under the sky. That doesn’t recognize the appreciation for the intricacies of the craft, the sound pros that practice it, and the evocative sounds in every forest and canyon, street and tunnel. Instead, it is a different way of thinking about recording sound. In the same way that photographers approach portraiture, architectural photography, and sports photography differently, these methods attempt to collect sound fx recording in helpful ways so you will successfully capture the sound you need.

So, this week’s post explores field recording techniques. It begins with an overview of each style, provides example sessions, their pros and cons, and shares a chart of comparisons. Later, the post contrasts the styles to help you choose the method that’s best for you.

Differences When Recording Sound Effects

Of course, there isn’t just one way to record sound effects. There are many differences. What are they?

Gear is the first one that comes to mind. As we saw in the recent field recording gear series, no two pros own identical kits. They choose their equipment carefully to capture to suit their tastes. How each pro applies these tools diverges further. The subjects they pursue, from rivers to cars to birds to letterpresses, is yet another difference.

The Need for Field Recording Styles

While those distinctions are well known, little is mentioned about the way field recording is done. Unlike the fixed categories of filmmaking, journalism, or photography, field recording is often seen under a single broad umbrella of simply “recording sound effects.” You just go out and do it, right?

Naturally, each session, situation, environment, and subject requires a different way to record sound effects. While the world is filled with billions of sounds, the style for recording them falls into four broad categories:

  • Controlled field recording.
  • Investigative field recording.
  • Stealth field recording.
  • Guerrilla field recording.

(The names are inspired by journalism or filmmaking styles.)

Types of Field Recording Techniques

I’ve mentioned the four styles many times. “What Type of Field Recordist Are You? Why You Need to Know” first probed that concept. It was one of the earliest articles I published on the site. I explored the idea more in my book, Field Recording: From Research to Wrap.

I’ve had more thoughts since, especially when writing about that tricky field recording session I mentioned earlier. So, I took a stab at organizing the differences in a chart to help see the distinctions side by side.

First, though, here’s a summary of each of the styles. Of course, the definitions aren’t absolutely rigid. The details from one style may overlap another. Consider them more as general guidelines to approach recording sound fx in the field.

Controlled Field Recording

Recording recon marines for HBO's "Generation Kill"

Controlled field recording: capturing recon marines (using smoke grenades) for HBO’s “Generation Kill”

Some field recording sessions begin with a corporate client. They need specific sound fx, and hire a field recordist to complete the work. They have a subject in mind, and know what they need. For example, a film may require sounds of specific locales from a distant city. They know they need market, train station, and church crowd atmospheres. They want them at least three minutes long and recorded in 4-channel quad. The recordist’s job is show up and complete the client’s checklist.

In this situation the recordist is a hired gun. While their input is valued, it is important to provide the client what they need. So, little interpretation is needed, or desired. In this way, a recordist may be forced to work under constraints of a shot list, equipment loadout, and so on. The sessions must capture sound methodically. This defined structure is a powerful way to highlight ample coverage of precise, clean sound effects.

Of course, because the field recordist is working for someone else, it is rare that they will own the final sound effects. Field recordings captured while working for a client are almost always owned by that production unless specifically mentioned otherwise, and typically cannot be resold or re-used.

Examples:

  • Recording a car for a commercial.
  • Boxing crowds for a movie.
  • Gun sound fx for a game studio.
Pros:

  • Access to rare fx and lots of gear.
  • Full control over the subject and environment.
  • Extensive coverage.
  • Accurate and clean sound effects.
  • Relatively easy to capture, master, and curate.
  • Less planning required.
  • Expenses paid by client.
Cons:

  • A fixed shot list may not accommodate for serendipity or emotional takes.
  • Little input.
  • Repetitive.

Investigative Field Recording

Investigative field recording style: researching & recording freight trains

Investigative field recording style: researching & recording freight trains

Most field recording sessions begin with an idea: the recordist imagines a cool sound to capture, plans their attack, then records the clip. For example, perhaps a field recordist’s friend’s father has 1930s tractor hidden in a barn. They research that model, contact the father, set up the session, and record the chugging motor.

Like investigative journalism, this style focuses on researching and exploring a single subject in detail. The idea behind investigative field recording is turning the idea for a cool sound into reality. That requires researching its intricacies and planning how to capture the subject well, while revealing every interesting voice it has.

This style differs from the controlled style in a few important ways. Instead of having a shot list supplied by a client, it is up to the field recordist to discover the cool voices and to capture them. While the controlled style demands little more than operating gear successfully, the investigative style adds to that. It requires planning the shoot, paying for all expenses, and discovering the best voices to highlight, by themselves.

Not every field recording requires weeks of research, of course. Sometimes a recordist may simply fire up their recorder and capture a sound. The idea is that this style plans, investigates, and explores an idea through sound.

Examples:

  • Recording the rivers of a state park.
  • Capturing all the vocalizations of a dog.
  • Getting access to a salvage yard to record dozens of types of metal hits.
Pros:

  • Structured and predictable.
  • Accurate and clean sound effects.
  • Flexible kit selection.
  • Relatively easy to capture, master, and curate.
  • Rewarding to plan and execute.
  • Not limited by a client’s take requirements.
Cons:

  • May require extensive research.
  • May need access from gatekeepers.
  • Must assume responsibility for entire session: costs, research, execution.

Stealth Field Recording

Stealth field recording style: IndyCar pit crews

Stealth field recording style: IndyCar pit crews

Not every sound effect can be recorded by simply planting a kit down and punching the record button. Why not?

Well, people react differently when they see a microphone and other expensive equipment. They may avoid the microphone. They may overact in front of it. Either situation corrupts the original sound so much that it does not resemble the clip the recordist planned to capture. At other times, recording equipment isn’t permitted at a location due to privacy concerns (such as in a hospital) or copyright issues (e.g., a sporting event).

The stealth technique is used to capture these tricky sound effects. By concealing their gear and diminishing their presence, the field recordist fades into the background and allows the sound effect to come to the forefront, authentically. It’s typically used to capture ambiences that include people (such as a mall crowd passing by), or other living things (hiding a field recordist’s presence so as not to startle birds in a forest).

Of course, field recording equipment is not easily concealed. That means the stealth style requires a lighter kit and a cleverly disguised recording bag that does not damage sound quality. It also demands that the recordist acts unobtrusively. It is an extremely restrictive way to work.

Furthermore, it is often difficult to monitor gear or adapt to situations as they happen. Stealth field recordists cannot capture clips with the same ideal settings that the controlled or investigative styles allow. Damaged files are common. Extensive mastering and curating work is typical. The result, however, is the ability to record the rarest, most evocative sounds in places where few sound pros have ever worked.

Examples:

  • Recording a coffee shop with head worn binaural microphones.
  • Sneaking a microphone into an MLB baseball game.
  • Capturing a dawn chorus without affecting the wildlife.
Pros:

  • Captures authentic, evocative performances.
  • Evades security issues.
  • Allows access to rare locations and sounds.
  • Inexpensive: no need to pay gatekeepers or rent locations.
Cons:

  • Limited kit choices.
  • Difficult to perform.
  • Risky.
  • Difficult to monitor.
  • Unpredictable environment and subject.
  • May capture non-ideal clips that require extensive mastering and curation.

Guerrilla Field Recording

Guerrilla field recording: a Timil Tigers protest

Guerrilla field recording: a Timil Tigers protest

There is an exciting category of sound effect subjects that change from minute to minute. Unlike recording the constant and predictable sounds of machines, guns, or vehicles, they may begin quietly, explode with emotion, then drift away. For example, a street protest may start patiently, then rally defiantly while marching away from a public square. To capture these sound fx, a field recordist must use the guerrilla style.

Named after guerrilla filmmakers, it shares the same concepts of run-and-gun movement and a lack of formal organization. It recognizes the fleeting nature of sound, and strives to ensnare it.

It is similar to the stealth recording method in the lack of control during the session, the avoidance of gatekeepers, and the rough-and-ready style of recording quality and monitoring. Less time is spent concealing the equipment, however, since in most cases the subject will act the same whether they notice the recordist or not.

Because these events are not precisely planned, they are hard to predict, so little research is required. Instead, the recordist must sense the energy and emotion of the subject, and brace themselves to record it properly only moments before it occurs. Perhaps a field recordist may notice a protest leader is coming to the conclusion of their speech, and adjusts levels and positioning to capture an expected cheer. It requires a light, portable kit to allow a recordist to flit about a location from minute to minute. A mic stand is never used. The microphone and recorder must be built for flexibility, perhaps accommodating multiple pick-up patterns or capsules in one form-factor.

It is a challenging field recording style to master. However, when this technique is performed correctly, it has the ability to capture truly unique performances full of spirt and emotion in a way no other technique can accomplish.

Examples:

  • Recording a riot.
  • Following a street protest.
  • Capturing sporting event reactions.
Pros:

  • Captures spirited performances.
  • Documents evolving events.
  • Allows access to rare locations and sounds.
  • Inexpensive: no need to pay gatekeepers or rent locations.
Cons:

  • Limited kit choices.
  • Difficult to perform.
  • Difficult to monitor.
  • Unpredictable environment and subject.
  • May capture non-ideal clips that require extensive mastering and curation.
  • Demands extreme adaptation skills.

Comparing Field Recording Styles

So, how do these field recording techniques compare? I’ve created a chart that highlights their differences and similarities. I’ll explore the contrasts below.

I’ve organized the details into four categories.

Session Type

Controlled Investigative Stealth Guerrilla
Client Corporate Individual Individual Individual
Research None Extensive Medium Low
Session Cost High Depends on subject None None
Kit type Large: extensive, immobile Depends on subject, immobile Small: light, portable Small: light, portable

The controlled method begins with a client request while all other techniques are usually performed for the recordist themselves. Of course, that means the majority of methods require the recordist to apply varying amounts of research to educate themselves on their subjects. Commonly (but not always), a client will know the type of sound fx they need before the project begins, and have completed the work before the recordist appears on location.

These controlled sessions are usually expensive affairs, for the client, anyway. They require paying gatekeepers (talent, locations, etc). Investigative sessions may cost as well, depending on the subject, but don’t reach the scope of renting a race track for a week, for example. By their nature, stealth and guerrilla recording have no access or talent costs since those sound pros are recording unobtrusively or unusually.

What kind of kits do these styles require? Controlled sessions feature dozens of microphones wired to multiple recorders or workstations. They capture multiple tracks with ample gear. The investigative style has this option as well, but since it is under the control of the recordist themselves, extreme $30k+ gear lockers are less common. Both the stealth and guerrilla styles cannot function with the same type of equipment. They need smaller, lighter kits. Why? The stealth method needs to conceal this gear. By contrast, the guerrilla technique needs a kit to be portable so they can scurry around a location.

Environment and Subject

Controlled Investigative Stealth Guerrilla
Access to subject/environment Full Full Restricted Medium
Location Static Static Static Mobile
Control over subject/environment Full Full None None
Interaction with subject/environment Structured, predictable Structured, predictable Unpredictable Unpredictable
Freedom to work High: organized, planned Medium: organized Low: constrained Low: unpredictable
Adaptation required None None Medium high High
Risk None Low High High
Gatekeepers Many, helpful Depends on subject None None

One of the major benefits of controlled field recording is that it provides utter control over the recording environment and the subject. An entire airfield and a series of prop planes may be rented for a day, for instance. That’s less common with investigative recording, but is possible. In comparison, stealth field recording has absolutely no control over the environment and forces the sound pro to work in restricted conditions. The guerrilla style also lacks control over the environment, but since stealth is not as important, it has a bit more control than the stealth method. It is the only style that demands mobility from the recordist.

These ideas are mirrored by the lack of control over the subject that both the stealth and guerrilla styles share. They can’t conduct a riot or a cafe crowd, after all. In contrast, the controlled and investigative styles are specifically performed so that sound pros have ample control over their subject to capture as many takes however they prefer. They are organized to capture these tracks in a way that the stealth and guerrilla methods aren’t able to in their constrained and unpredictable working conditions. Instead, the stealth and guerrilla techniques require varying degrees of adaptation not found in the controlled and investigative styles. Part of the need for adaptation is used to mitigate the risk of security, discovery, and hostility. That’s absent from the controlled style. That’s because it specifically employs gatekeepers to help capture rare sound effects few other sound pros would have access to. While these are optionally used during the investigative method, they are explicitly sidestepped with the stealth and guerrilla styles.

Sound Effects

How about the sound effects themselves?

Controlled Investigative Stealth Guerrilla
Nature of sound effects Clinical Clinical Authentic Spirited, emotional
Coverage High: specific, by request Medium high: complete Low: incomplete Low: incomplete
Quality of sound effects High: precise, clean, accurate Medium: accurate Low: uncertain Low: random
Performance type Active: planned shot list Active: planned shot list Passive: adapt to environment Passive: wait for performance
Ease of Mastering High Medium Low Low
Ease of Curation High High Low Low

The organization and extreme control of the controlled sessions provides ample coverage of high-quality, clean, and accurate sound clips with clinical precision. There’s potential for investigative field recording to capture the same type of clips, but may lack the diversity of gear and full environmental control bigger budgets may command. Regardless, they are active sessions where the recordist performs or samples the takes repeatedly.

Full coverage is impossible when stealth or guerrilla field recording. After all, who knows how a cafe crowd may change or a protest may erupt? These “passive” recordings can’t command their subjects differently, but instead must adapt to them, and capture what they can. Because their subjects are in flux, it’s harder to capture tracks analytically. So, the quality may be lower not because of a recordist’s skill or the nature of the sound itself, but because studio-like recording monitoring is impossible in these scenarios. They payoff is that these techniques capture the most emotional and vibrant sound fx possible. The investigative and controlled styles trade these spirited, authentic takes for clarity, detail, and quantity. Since they’re recorded in a more controlled environment, they’re easier to master and curate. The stealth and guerrilla methods require more cleaning and detailed documentation to bring them up to standard.

Summary

So, how do the styles stack up? Are any more difficult than the others?

Controlled Investigative Stealth Guerrilla
Difficulty (i.e., not “skill required”) Low Medium High High
Rate of success High High Low Low

While controlled field recording still requires sound to be captured accurately and wisely, it’s comparatively less difficult (note: not “less skilled&#8221) in the highly-budgeted and structured controlled style. The investigative method is similar, but due to the lack of budget, staff, and gear, it may be a bit tricker for a recordist to complete themselves. Stealth and guerrilla field recording and extremely challenging techniques to pull off since they face so many changes from the subject, the environment, and equipment. That points to a higher rate of success in controlled and investigative field recording than when using the stealth and guerrilla styles.

The Need for Field Recording Styles

So which is the best method?

No method is better than another.

Why then bother creating field recording styles? Well, you wouldn’t want to bring a bare bones stealth kit to record a Maserati. You could, of course, but you wouldn’t be able to capture the full expression of that car without a larger, more specialized kit that controlled field recording allows. Similarly, you wouldn’t want to set up dozens of microphones on stands at guerrilla recording of a student protest. Not only would the gear be at risk, but the protestors may act differently if they see the equipment. As a result, the sound effects wouldn’t be as vibrant.

Choosing the proper style isn’t limited to gear, either. It helps you plan properly, manage expectations, and adapt to the environment and subject being captured. Choosing to record in the controlled style will allow you to plan an extensive shot list and capture the takes accurately and cleanly. Knowing that the stealth style is more suitable for a subject prepares you to capture unmonitored recordings that you can expect will need comparatively more hours of mastering and curation.

In other words, dividing your work into one of these categories is another tool you can use to help plan your field recording sessions, avoid mistakes, and gather the most evocative clips that the subject and situation allow.





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